What next for Hong Kong as its ‘dragon head’ status becomes history?
City is not being thrust forward as a leader in regional development plans as it once might have been, and grand ideas for Hainan province mean Hong Kong will have to play to its strengths
“Dragon head” was once a popular term to describe a place that takes the leading role in a region, particularly Hong Kong in relation to cooperation within the Pearl River Delta.
That seems to be history now.
Not only is the term rarely used these days, the reality is that Hong Kong is apparently no longer considered a leader in the “Greater Bay Area” mega project – an ambitious plan to coordinate the overall development of the city with Guangdong province as well as Macau.
Attending a brainstorming session at the Boao Forum that just ended on the southern island of Hainan last week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor raised a valid point: how do we avoid overlapping development?
She highlighted one issue in particular: how do we coordinate the functions of the various ports in Hong Kong and Guangdong?
Lam’s concerns are not without reason. Hong Kong, which considers itself a logistics hub in the region, has been overtaken by ports in neighbouring Shenzhen and Shanghai in terms of cargo throughput volume. So, basically, she was asking in a diplomatic way who should do what in future.
Interesting enough was the equally diplomatic response of Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui. He pointed out that under “one country, two systems”, Hong Kong had a very different set-up from that of the mainland, and problems deriving from those “limitations” between Hong Kong and other cities in the area needed to be addressed step by step rather than in one go.
Putting it in plain language, Ma realises the unavoidable overlap, which could mean no single dragon head in the overall development of the area, which is home to 65 million people and comparable with the San Francisco Bay Area.
A more practical approach would be to identify more clearly each other’s strengths for better coordination.
Meanwhile, one piece of Boao-related news that went quite unnoticed was Macau’s decision to set up a 2 trillion yuan (US$318 billion) Greater Bay Area development fund with Guangdong to strengthen its tourism industry and boost other fields such as education and Chinese medicine.
So, what are Hong Kong’s advantages?
Lam did point out one deliverable for the city: helping the Greater Bay Area become China’s hi-tech centre by encouraging more Hong Kong talent and related enterprises to move across the border.
It will take time to fulfil this, and now comes Hainan, another competitor or potential partner, depending on how you see it.
Two days after the Boao Forum, President Xi Jinping announced another ambitious plan – to turn Hainan, which is marking its 30th birthday as an independent province from Guangdong, into China’s biggest free trade port.
It will be the biggest showcase of China’s deeper reforms, with the province on a mission to become the country’s “ecological civilisation” centre, a tourism hotspot and a national “strategic base”, given its rich resources and location in the South China Sea.
So, what should Hong Kong do now if its dragon head role has become history?
Over the weekend, Han Zheng, who ranks seventh in China’s powerful standing committee of the Politburo, officially replaced former top legislator Zhang Dejiang, who retired in March, to oversee Hong Kong affairs.
It was believed that when Xi put Zhang in charge of Hong Kong five years ago, it was mainly because of the impending political reforms for universal suffrage in 2017. That, unfortunately, failed and triggered the 79-day Occupy protests.
Han is a former Shanghai party chief who has rich experience in running the Shanghai Free Trade Zone and coordinating the regional economy. By putting him in charge, like it or not, Beijing is determined to turn Hong Kong into an economy-oriented rather than politically charged city.